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What's In a Name?: or, 10 short chapters about teen angst

Updated on June 9, 2011

Over the past few years that I've occasionally dipped my toes into teen novels, Ellen Wittlinger has been one of my favorite novelists in the genre. Oftentimes with novels featuring and targeting teens, the author has a tendency to sympathize too much with the central character, to the point where they are always right and whatever antagonist there is in the story (be it parents, bullies, or whatever) is always wrong, and our hero triumphs eventually over the people trying to keep him or her down.

What I like about Ellen Wittlinger is that she doesn't allow herself to do anything like that. Her main characters, much like real people, often stupidly do things they shouldn't do for reasons that only really make sense if they don't think about them too hard, whether it be pursuing someone with an incompatible sexual orientation ("Hard Love"), dating someone who is obviously manipulative and emotionally unstable ("Love and Lies"), or, in perhaps the quintessential example of this idea, kidnapping someone who reminds you of your murdered sister ("The Long Night of Leo and Bree"). Aside from Barry Lyga (whose "Goth Girl Rising" I expect to be reviewing within a few days), Wittlinger is one of the finest creators of this kind of teen novel of sympathetic but wrong-headed characters, and "What's In A Name" adds itself to her long list of accomplishments in this arena.

The novel is quite short (less than 200 pages) but manages to feature 10 different protagonists! This is done by giving each character a chapter told from their perspective, which somehow manages to advance all of the different plot threads effectively.

The theme of the book is identity crises, as each of the characters struggles with both who they are and who people think they are while in the background the residents of the town are planning on voting on whether to rename their town from Scrub Harbor to Folly Bay. In perhaps the most deft touch by Wittlinger, most of the viewpoint characters could conform to an easy high school cliche--the poor kid, the weird kid, the exchange student, the inner city kid, the popular girl, the jock--and many are thought of as their stereotype by other characters, but once we get into their heads it becomes increasingly clear that they completely transcend whatever assumption we might have about them.

Another touch that I liked is that for the most part Wittlinger starts with the more exile-ish characters (the standard characters to sympathize with in a novel like this) and moves on to more stereotypical "popular" characters (who would typically be antagonists in this kind of story) so that by the time we get to them it is blatantly obvious that what the "exile" characters assume and believe about the "popular" kids is bull. It's rather an interesting and somewhat refreshing twist on things.

Not that Wittlinger's conceit doesn't have its limitations. As each character only gets one chapter, we only get to see a tiny part of their story arc focused on, having to grasp the rest through what other characters observe. This means that, for instance, a character who early on is extremely closed off and even hostile to interaction with his fellow students becomes by the end of the book significantly more extroverted and friendly, but we don't really see this change happen. Also, the book only really captures small but significant changes to the characters' personalities and viewpoints (realistically, the kind of small personality and viewpoint shifts that one might actually experience in high school), so if you're looking for dramatic internal drama, this isn't the book for you. I also disliked a chapter told from the perspective of a Brazilian exchange student, as Wittlinger decided to voice him in an irritating and somewhat hard to read pidgin English to demonstrate his lack of comprehension of those around him. It was a noble effort, but it came off both making it a hard chapter to read and somewhat insulting to the character.

All in all, however, this is a fine little morsel of a book, filled with 10 different perspectives on life as a high schooler. These characters are vibrant and interesting, and sympathetic while also often being wrong, and this makes the story all the more fascinating. If you see this book, snatch it up and gobble it up all in one go.

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